Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Today’s text is one of those Gospel readings that we think we know so well, there’s nothing more to say about it, especially since Jesus himself provided an explanation of his own parable. It’s all about the people who hear God’s Word, we think, and why some believe and become disciples and others don’t. We even internalize it and say that there are times in our lives when we are good soil and other times when we are rocky soil and when we are choked by thorns, etc. We even sang this as our Gospel Acclamation today, “Lord, let my heart be good soil,” praying that we might be “open to the seed” of God’s word. This is indeed a good sentiment. Our constant prayer should be that we would be open to hearing God’s word and putting it into practice. But in all of this, we have made the parable about us. Every time we hear this parable, we beat ourselves up for not being good-enough Christians. We vow that we’re going to be good soil, and we’re going to start coming to worship on Sundays more often. And that lasts for a little while, until our sinful natures take over again and we go back to our old habits. But what if there’s something more to this parable? What if it really isn’t all about us?
When I taught this story to the confirmation kids toward the end of the year, I got a great reaction to it from one of them. First, there was the little matter of clearing up what a sower is. After all, the girls’ experience with farming tells them that farming is all done by machine. In the back of my apartment complex, I watched the farmer this year go over and over the field, readying it for the seeds he would plant by making furrows, and then finally planting the seeds with a machine. So I had to explain to the girls that, when the Bible was written, these efficient machines did not exist, and people planted the seed by scattering it into the ground. This is called “sowing seed” and the person who does it is called a “sower”. Once they understood this concept, they looked at the parable again. And one of the girls said, “How wasteful! My grandfather would never farm like that, because he would be taking too much of a risk in not getting a good harvest!” And I got really excited and said, “Yes, that is the point! The sower is God, and God spreads the seed in an extravagant way, knowing that some seed will take root and other seed won’t. But he keeps spreading the seed in this manner nonetheless!”
This is what happens when we turn the parable around and put the focus on God and not on ourselves. Yes, the different kinds of soil are about us. Last week we heard about how John the Baptist was doubting that Jesus was really the Messiah and how people were not believing that God was at work in both John the Baptist and in Jesus. This week, Jesus is telling us in parables why some people believe and others don’t. But where we get into trouble is when we try to define what kind of soil we are and what kind of soil others are. What if, for example, we think we are good soil, open to God’s word, and God is saying, “Well, not so much. I keep trying to talk to you about this one issue in your life, and you’re not listening.” Or, on the other end, what if we, in despair, think we are being choked by thorns and come crying out to God to help us. Wouldn’t that then be good soil? After all, God desires us to repent and hear his word of forgiveness to us. In the end, only God knows the answer to what kind of soil we might be. So instead, we need to focus on God’s role in the story: the God of abundance, who continually throws out seed in what seems to us a reckless, haphazard manner, but who knows, as the prophet Isaiah says today, that his word will not return to him empty, but will accomplish that which he purposes for it.
So, what does this mean for us who follow Jesus? It means that we trust that Jesus is the sower, not us. It means that we have confidence in that God of abundance and trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in all that we do, even when it feels like failure. In her book, Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber talks about how she had planned a traditional Rally Day activity to try and bring her unconventional congregation all together for one day in the late summer, since attendance at Sunday morning worship had not been great. She pulled out all the stops, including a cotton candy machine, burgers, chips and other food. And she ended up getting fewer people than normal in attendance that day. So, after the Rally Day event, they took all of their leftover food and handed it out to hungry people in the park. She recounts how she grumbled inside of herself about all of the effort she had gone to, and her congregation couldn’t bother to show up. It was only later that night, woken up from a sound sleep, that she realized the Holy Spirit had used what had seemed like a failure on her part to reach out to others who needed to hear and see the Word of God. All of those hungry people in the park experienced God as they received food from her congregation. This is the God of abundance at work: spreading the Word indiscriminately, not caring where it lands, and knowing that what is planted will spring up in places where we humans will least expect it to grow.
Therefore we too should not be miserly with how we sow the seed of God’s Word. We tend to do this when we think, “Why have an event over in the trailer park (as an example)? The people there won’t listen. It’s a dangerous part of town—that’s where all the drug addicts hang out.” This is one example of hoarding the good news that God has given us: not going out and reaching out to people because we fear that we won’t “get a return” on our “investment”. This is such a peculiarly American way of thinking, and it doesn’t have any basis in the gospel of the kingdom of God. We are not called to spread the Word because God is going to show us what the results are so that we feel good about ourselves. Instead, we are called to give of ourselves generously, trusting that God’s Word will go out—through us, the imperfect, bumbling sowers—and do what God intends for it to do.
And, there are many different ways that we can sow the seed of God’s Word. One example: Over the last few months, we have had a series of meetings to come up with a master plan for our building here at Hope. This plan will be just that: a plan of what we think is necessary to have done and the priorities in which we would like for them to be done. The meetings have been overall good discussions and not without some disagreement. But one of the things that was discussed that raised some controversy was whether or not to have a room dedicated for the use of our youth. Some people said that, “If you build it, they will come.” Others said that it was not a wise use of our resources, because we don’t have very many youth, and the ones we do have wouldn’t want to use it. That part of the discussion was tabled, and I will tell you that I have struggled with this idea, too. But in light of today’s Gospel reading, I now believe that it would be a good idea to have a room dedicated for the use of the youth. I think that, too often when we discuss something like this, we suffer from a fear of failure. What happens if we put all of this work into it, and the effort fails? When we ask this question, then we are not putting our trust in God the Sower of the seed. Sowing the seed of the gospel may require a place in the church building which the youth can call their own, where they know they feel welcome, and where they would want to bring their friends. Will we see a “return” on our “investment”? Maybe so. Or, maybe not. But we never know how God will use the work that we do to touch someone else’s life with the good news of Jesus Christ. What seems like failure to us may end up being successful in God’s eyes, just like the story of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Rally Day experience.
If you take one thing away from this parable today, I hope that what you take away is that God is a God of abundance. And since God is a God of abundance, we should not fear scarcity as we go about the work of sowing the seed. For ultimately, we are not the sowers: God is. God works through us, through what we see as success and through what we see as failure. When we get discouraged and wonder why we don’t see more people coming to faith in Jesus, we can return to the parable of the sower and our text from Isaiah this day to remind ourselves that God is, indeed, intimately involved with everything we do. We may be lucky enough to see the blessings that God brings about. More likely than not, we will not see them. But we can have faith that God’s word goes out abundantly, landing in the least likely places, and will produce an abundant harvest. Let us not lose this faith. Amen.